People from all over the world have been sending Happy Birthday messages to our house today, not randomly mind you, but because my life-partner-in-crime is–I’m not making this up–commemorating his birthday on this very date. Hard to believe he isn’t simply frozen in time, if you have seen the guy or met him, he not only looks younger than he is but thinks and acts with a decidedly youthful joie de vivre.
Unlike the late, great Jack Benny, my spouse has no desire or need to perpetually revisit his thirty-ninth birthday. With Mr. Benny, granted, it was an amusing ongoing joke from a man playing a parody of himself as a vain, self-centered cheapskate and a wildly deluded hipster-wannabe. And the joke only worked so well with him because he was widely known not to be any of those things in real life. Biographical tales of the real person Benjamin Kubelsky grew up to be make it clear he was genuinely charming and talented and worked with remarkable dedication to achieve the appearance of a lazy, egotistical and rather hapless fool constantly stymied and bettered by others and the world in general and utterly mystified by it all. Central to his concept of being a performer was that it was his responsibility to offer top-flight entertainment for his audience, and if that meant giving all of the laughs to the other actors at his expense, or featuring musical guests with a high profile on his programs while lampooning his own quite skilled violin playing, he was more than content to do so, and always the first to applaud them with genuine admiration.
Not surprising that such a man would be remembered by so many with such deep and enduring affection, nor that despite any dated references and lack of stylistic currency, his comedy when heard and seen nowadays still has such resonance.
There is a small truth that I must own for the sake of full disclosure: my grandfather looked and acted a lot like Jack Benny. While Mr. Benny died when I was still relatively young, and even more so for that matter did Grandpa, the television program was still being regularly broadcast far enough into my youth to be imprinted on my memory distinctly, and seemed quite often an echo of my own Grandpa’s sly and selfless sense of hilarity; coupled with a slight physical resemblance between the two, this means that watching the Jack Benny program can be a little like watching (unusually well-produced) home movies of my grandfather. Most distinctly, the many times I saw each of those long-gone delightful men falling to pieces with laughter, usually at someone else’s witticisms or clever moves, made me conflate them somewhat in memory. And I knew that for both, it was an innate sense of urgency in pursuing the joy that was floating right around them that drove the amazing commitment to seeing, feeling and creating happiness.
An utterly different approach from that of my grandma. Granny honed her joy-craft willfully and out of necessity, with not much more in the way of a starter kit of ingredients and tools handed to her than a bit of protective sisterly love and her own power and imagination. Her childhood and youth were colored by parenting that evidently ranged from neglectful to grotesquely abusive at times, and she certainly had neither wealth nor fairy godmother nor any other great advantage to bail her out of that, but as her adoring grandchild I never saw the remotest hint of any of that. What I saw was a woman with a rich capacity for laughter and love and endless patience for showering her grandchildren with massive doses of both. She not only pulled herself through her early years on her own strength but became a lifelong expert at choosing happiness and knowing how to conjure it into existence, seeking the right people to populate her life, situations in which to immerse herself, and the wisdom and determination to see the good in all. The result, as I lived in it, was an extended family touched at every point by Granny’s warmth and playfulness and delight in laughter and happiness. How can anyone not fall in love with that?
No mystery, then, that I would not settle for anything less in a lifelong love partnership than another expert in seeking and making happiness everywhere he goes. It’s a distinct part of how he manages to come across as younger than not only his chronological years but the experiences he’s lived and, sometimes, weathered along the way. This man was gifted from birth with great parenting and a happy childhood and youth alongside a terrific brother, so he could be said to have gotten a better natural foundation than my grandmother’s ever was–but like most people, he’s seen his share of hard work and emotional trials and certainly, some wrenching losses. Those may be par for the course: everyone is affected at various points in life by unwelcome troubles and certainly by the disasters around him and the deaths of people close to him. What’s not so common is the ability and will to deal as graciously and sensibly as one can with life’s inevitable blows. It’s this skill and art–born, bred and cultivated–that make him a distinctively wonderful person who manages to build an atmosphere of contentment and positive outlook around him.
It’s what makes him see the world with a rather forgiving skew yet one that knows only a sense of humor will pull him through and out of any undesired mire. Better laugh than cry, any time! Needless to say, he makes me smile; he makes me laugh. He’s not going to be switching to a career as a stand-up comedian anytime soon (and neither of us can remember a joke from one end to the other) but he sees the funny side of so much, and just the sight of that unaffected smile, those blue eyes scrunched up with a mischievous twinkle, the sound of that musical laugh–can brighten the dullest or darkest moment instantly. I can think of a whole lot of other things to like and love about my husband, but on his birthday I can say with great conviction that his ability to bring happiness to me and many other people around him is one of the things I appreciate the most.
There was no fancy party to celebrate the occasion of this birthday. Scrambled eggs for dinner, a little dish of homemade vanilla ice cream later in lieu of any glamorous festive dessert. Quiet time doing some work to prepare for tomorrow’s various jobs and tasks. Sitting together later in the TV room watching some pre-recorded stuff and just reaching over occasionally to hold hands and smirk at each other like teenagers, because it still amazes and amuses us to have found each other and be having such a truly happy life. Only takes a very little bit of effort along the way, and what a marvelous byproduct real happiness is. So, fancy or no, without any cake and candles or fussy doings of any sort, kind of an ordinary day of work and busyness, but in the end, I think I can say without fear of contradiction, a really Happy Birthday.
May there be many more!